If raiding the refrigerator were an Olympic sport, Bob Cobb would have won a gold medal. Cobb was the owner of the Brown Derby, a Los Angeles restaurant as well known for the Hollywood movie crowd it attracted as for the food it served. According to historians who keep track of such things, sometime in the 1920s, Cobb went into the kitchen to fix himself a snack. Instead of reaching for the first thing he saw and wolfing it down by the light of the refrigerator, he made a quick inventory of what was available and put together a salad that turned out to be more than the sum of its parts. There was nothing unusual about the ingredients: chicken, avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheese, some hard-cooked eggs and a few strips of bacon. But when Cobb tossed them together with dressing, it turned out to be a very tasty combination.
What happened next was what made the salad famous. It was listed on the restaurant’s menu as Cobb Salad, but instead of tossing everything together as Cobb had done, the restaurant’s cooks arranged the ingredients in a sort of mosaic that resembled a flag. When it was ordered, the dazzling arrangement was presented on a large, deep platter. Then vinaigrette dressing was drizzled over the top, and the salad was tossed at the table.
Obviously there is plenty of wiggle room for what to put in Cobb Salad, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a dumping ground for leftovers. Following Cobb’s recipe and without the benefit of a refrigerator of ready-to-eat leftovers, we made the salad. The only glitch was that we didn’t have a platter big enough to handle the arranging and tossing. Instead, we put together a beautiful mosaic and showed it off at the table. When the applause died down, we took the salad back to the kitchen, slid it into a big bowl and tossed it. It’s a culinary gold medal.
By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.